Skateboarding is not a crime.
Neither is walking.
But in Dormont, some parents are hazy about where police are drawing the line. They say officers have warned their teenagers that simply walking along Potomac Avenue’s business district could get them arrested.
Dormont police Chief Richard Dwyer said a borough ordinance on streets, making it a non-traffic offense. But nothing prohibits youths from walking through the neighborhood.
“There is no ordinance that says a kid can’t walk there,” Dwyer said, adding that such a measure would violate civil rights.
Dwyer said he’s occasionally come across reports where officers ask kids congregating around businesses to move along. But there’s no concerted effort to crack down on kids skateboarding or hanging out on Potomac Avenue, he said, and he hasn’t seen citations concerning either since taking over as interim chief in June.
“I read every report every day, and I have not seen one citation,” Dwyer said.
He can’t guarantee that officers aren’t giving these warnings, Dwyer added, but he has yet to witness such an incident or receive a complaint about it.
Among youths, that lack of communication could be a result of shaken trust.
Justin Warner, for instance, said he had to take refuge in an alley after a police encounter earlier this month.
Warner, 17, said he and his 16- and 19-year-old brothers were walking home along Potomac Avenue when a police car came to a stop.
“They basically just told us to go somewhere,” Warner said, “and if we didn’t, or if they saw us again, that they were going to put us in the back of the cop car.”
Warner, who doesn’t skateboard and was on foot at the time, said the officers did not give him a chance to explain himself.
Since Warner and his brothers live on Potomac Avenue and would have to continue walking on it to get home, they went instead to an alley near Tom’s Diner and called their mother for a ride.
“It wasn’t like that when I was a kid,” said Lisa Pasheuta, the boys’ Dormont-raised mother. “We never had any problems with the police unless we did something wrong.”
Pasheuta and her sons had just moved back to on Nov. 1 after living in Beaver County for about 10 years.
“I never been in trouble with the cops at all,” Warner said, adding that he’s tried to avoid Potomac since the incident. “I don’t want to get arrested for walking.”
Mandy Swartzwelder, who grew up with Pasheuta and whose 15-year-old son, Jake Swartzwelder, is a friend of Warner’s, said her son also was mistreated by police.
On Dec. 22, Swartzwelder and her son, who turns 16 two days later, will appear in court for a “defiant trespass” citation he received after he and a friend ducked into an apartment building’s hallway to warm up around 6:30 p.m. on Oct. 1.
They had lived in the building, which sits at the corner of Potomac and West Liberty avenues, for about eight years and had moved out less than a year before the incident, she said. Jake had waited for rides there in the past, she added, and he didn’t think it was a problem.
When she left work to pick up Jake, officers explained that there were “no trespassing” signs and told her they were tired of kids hanging out the streets, she said.
“The cops said to me, ‘We’re just going to start arresting everybody,'" Swartzwelder said.
Swartzwelder maintains that her son was not doing anything improper other than being there, and she thinks the citation was harsh. A single mother, she had to borrow $500 from her own mother to hire an attorney.
More importantly, she said, teenagers who can’t drive don’t have many options when it comes to recreation. Swartzwelder supports the development of a skate park in the borough and thinks a youth center would be beneficial, too.
“There’s nowhere for them to go,” she said.
Jake, who skateboards, had previously been hassled for skating in the parking lot next to their former apartment, she added—even after he had gotten permission from the bank’s manager to do so after closing time.
“They’re just harassing the kids up here,” Swartzwelder said. “The kids don’t trust them.
“You’re supposed to look up to cops,” she said. “They’re supposed to be there to help you.”
For his part, Dwyer said the officers had the right to cite Jake Swartzwelder, owing to the signs that were displayed.
As for Warner’s incident, Dwyer said he’s heard nothing of it. Which is a problem, he added, if Warner’s story is true.
“If a policeman told him that, he would be absolutely wrong,” Dwyer said.
Unless folks report incidents, he said, it’s hard to investigate the issue.
“If they have a problem, the parent should come to me,” he said.
Asked if she reported the incident to the police chief, Pasheuta said she hadn’t—partly because she thought the officers were acting in compliance with an ordinance and partly because she feared her sons would see a backlash.
“I didn’t want a fine, to be honest with you,” Pasheuta said. “And I didn’t want them being targeted.”